It was looking ugly there for a few days, with mobs of South Africans in townships around Johannesburg randomly murdering several dozen “foreigners” (migrants from other African countries) and injuring several hundred. But now President Thabo Mbeki has acted decisively: he has announced the establishment of a panel of inquiry into the violence. That should fix it.
Just in case he gets impatient while waiting for the panel’s report, however, I can tell him what it will say—or at least, what it should say. It should say that the root problem was his own government’s “noninterventionist” policy on immigration: its refusal to control or even count the number of people arriving in South Africa from other African countries.
The mere fact that the commonly used estimate is “three to five million” illegal immigrants says it all: the authorities really have no idea how many foreigners are in South Africa. But the higher estimate is probably closer to the truth, for some four million people have left Zimbabwe alone to seek work abroad, and almost all of them have gone to South Africa.
This “open borders” nonpolicy had high motives. Many of South Africa’s current leaders are men and women who spent decades in exile during the fight against apartheid, and the migrants come mostly from the countries that gave them shelter at that time. How can they turn away people from those countries—from Zimbabwe, above all—now that the shoe is on the other foot?
It is an honourable sentiment, but more easily experienced if, like South Africa’s current leaders, you lead a secure and comfortable life in one of the nicer northern suburbs of Johannesburg. If you happen to live in Alexandra township (not all that far from those pleasant suburbs) amidst garbage and violence and chronic poverty, and you don’t have a job, it’s a little harder to access such noble emotions—because one-tenth of the people in the country are illegal immigrants, and lots of them do have jobs.
Miserable, underpaid jobs, for the most part, but in a country where the true unemployment rate is somewhere near half, there are bound to be a great many people who resent foreigners getting any jobs at all. Especially because there is some truth in the complaint of poor and uneducated South Africans that the illegal immigrants get the unskilled jobs because employers can pay them less and they won’t dare complain. None of this justifies murder, but it does begin to explain it.
Thabo Mbeki was incredibly foolish to assume that he could just let foreigners flood into the country and not expose them to a popular backlash. The South African media are filled with self-flagellating editorials that all basically ask, “What kind of people are we if we can behave like this?” The answer is: not saintly inhabitants of some imagined “rainbow nation” that has risen above the normal human plane, just ordinary people under pressure and behaving badly.
Last week in Italy, other ordinary people threw Molotov cocktails into Gypsy camps and burned them down. Most of those people have jobs, live in comfortable surroundings, and eat quite well, and they still behaved badly. There are only about 150,000 Roma in Italy, half of whom have been there since the 15th century. They are less than a quarter of one percent of the population, and yet 68 percent of Italians want them all expelled.
The South African poor have been amazingly patient as year after year went by—14 years now since the end of apartheid—when so little has changed for the better in their lives. The black poor still loyally vote for the African National Congress, but their anger was going to burst out somewhere or other, sooner or later. By holding the door open to so many illegal immigrants, the government has guaranteed that they would be the primary target.
Maybe this is some Machiavellian plan to divert popular anger from the government itself, but probably not. It’s just that the leaders don’t see what has been happening to ordinary people. How else could Thabo Mbeki go on defending Robert Mugabe, the destroyer of Zimbabwe, year after year, when Mugabe’s misdeeds were the main reason that this enormous wave of illegal immigrants struck South Africa?
Justice Malala, whose column appears in the Times (the online version of South Africa’s Sunday Times), nailed it on Monday when he wrote: “(Our) people are behaving like barbarians because the ANC has failed—despite numerous warnings—to act on burning issues that are well known for having sparked similar eruptions across the globe....
“The Mbeki government’s refusal to even acknowledge the crisis in Zimbabwe has resulted in as many as 3 million Zimbabweans walking the streets of South Africa....Mbeki’s resolute refusal to address the crisis in Zimbabwe—and his friendship with President Robert Mugabe—has brought them here. His block-headedness is directly responsible for the eruption of xenophobia.”
Such plain talk is not “blaming the victim.” It is recognizing realities, which is the first step towards addressing them. And where the despairing poor of South Africa should be addressing their anger is not at helpless Zimbabweans but at the president who let this human catastrophe happen.